Will Argo sail again? A cautionary (but optimistic) tale (Part 1)
So you're thinking of writing a novel? Or you've already written one, sent it off to agents and don't know what to expect next? For anyone anywhere along that spectrum, or if you're just plain interested one person's experiences of the journey, I hope you find this useful.
In many ways, this is the sort of thing I would have quite liked to read the first time I put fingers to keyboard in anger. I must have read a hundred blogs and articles since then to try and patch together some sort of composite understanding about what I was up against. For all the common denominators, however, there were plenty more wildly different experiences, and certainly plenty of broken dreams littering the roadside. And I was barely scratching the surface.
My most recent effort, The Voyage of Argo, is now with several publishing editors and it's quite liberating knowing I can do nothing more with it. Liberating.... but also maddening.
So, I hope the following ramble might prove helpful. I've even included emails from my agent (with his kind permission) to make the process as transparent as possible. It's broken into two parts because it quickly started to run away from me but at least everything you might need to know - and plenty you don't - is all in one place. Be patient: you'll certainly need to be if you want to write! I suggest you get yourself a coffee...
Sat in front of the fire, nursing a pre-Christmas food baby, I was suddenly struck by two existential thoughts. (A) I was no longer doing enough exercise to justify the amount I had just eaten. Not even close. (B) My hopes of making, if not 'it', at least 'something' as a writer were very soon going to be stretched quite thin. I asked my wife Rachael, who was growing an actual baby (albeit only a couple of weeks old), where her laptop was.
Jason and The Argonauts was the first sword-and-sandals epic that I can remember watching with my folks when I was about seven or eight. In fact, Ray Harryhausen and Charlton Heston were probably the two men most responsible for inspiring an early love of Classics. I'd not long since read Pat Barker's The Silence of The Girls and would soon be picking up Madeline Miller's Circe. Both are brilliant and their bestseller status convinced me that a move from a Roman to a Greek setting was the right one. The historical fiction market for the former seemed to be becoming saturated: the latter, I thought, was on the rise. I'd rowed on the reconstructed Athenian trireme Olympias in sea trials in Poros in 1994 and always wanted to write something set on the high seas, so the Jason myth was the natural choice. In fact, I've always wished I was a few years older so I could have rowed with Tim Severin's crew aboard Argo in 1984. He achieved what had widely been regarded as impossible: sailing from mainland Greece through the Bosporus and onwards to Soviet Georgia alongside the southern coast of The Black Sea, using no modern navigational or mechanical equipment. And he completed it with less than half of Jason's fifty Argonauts. It was precisely this human angle that I was fascinated by. What if there was a Jason or, for that matter, a Herakles and they had also achieved the impossible three thousand years ago? At best, I'm agnostic. I wanted to imagine what this might have been like without Poseidon popping up and holding murderous rocks apart for him. A voyage into the unknown, made by real people whose hands blistered, who farted and cursed, who loved and hated...
Whilst doing some initial research, I was dreading seeing Argo on the jacket cover of a recent novel. Apart from a few kids' books, there didn't really seem to be much since Robert Graves' The Golden Fleece, and that had first been published 75 years ago. Emily Hauser's For The Winner is comparable. It's a good read but, like Circe and The Silence of The Girls, reimagines Greek myths through a female perspective, which was not what I was going to do. With this nagging sense of someone else in the world at that very moment writing the same novel (a feeling which has never really left me), a prologue of 3885 words had appeared by the second evening. I liked it and showed it to Rachael. I might have caught her hormones at a good moment because she read it in one sitting. I decided it was worth pursuing and that I had better get a wriggle on: the prospect of a second baby in nine months time - just as the first is beginning to sleep through the night - tends to do that! I suppose in retrospect the theme of birth (see the first few pars, below) was a pretty obvious one...
Lightning jagged behind the summit of Mount Pelion, etching its rugged peaks against a sky that broiled purple and grey with mist. Thunder grumbled over the fertile plains and sheltered harbours and, high above, the wind whistled through the numinous pine forests and valleys of Thessaly.
The two palace guards sheltering in the porch of the megaron of Iolkos shared a nervous grin. Childbirth extended no dignity to womankind, regardless of royal birth: from somewhere within, the queen was now lowing like a cow. A flash drenched the walled courtyard in brilliant, flickering light just beyond where they were stood, illuming the water that sheeted down the limestone blocks. A muffled crack of thunder followed several seconds later. The younger of the pair glanced up at the dark clouds scudding over the porch roof towards the harbour.
“Can’t be a good omen, this,” he muttered.
“For her or for us?”
He frowned at the other man. In the unforgiving light of a portable brazier, his crooked grin revealed a missing front tooth. “For her.”
7th JANUARY 2019
Decided to send a sample (the first 9948 words) to my agent, the prodigiously experienced Ian Drury of Sheil Land Associates. I say 'my' agent but the truth is that I'd sent him very little - actually, to be honest, nothing - since I'd submitted a refreshed version of The Consul's Daughter to him back in 2014. Small wonder that he'd not kicked me into touch as a waste of time: perhaps he'd just forgotten to. His patience with me stretches back more than a decade...
I sent out my first ever historical fiction submission - Shadows in The Tiber - at some point in December 2008, when 'Lad Baby' was apparently Christmas number one. I'd say this makes it feel like an age ago but I have no idea who this guy is nor any recollection of his song. This submission was the usual synopsis + cover letter + first few chapters, and I think I'd bundled up ten of these packs in Holborn Police Station. I should probably have been out solving crime or something but it was right at the end of the shift. Nine of these went in the post but the tenth, I noticed, was addressed to an agency on Doughty Street, only five minutes away from Holborn nick on Theobald's Road. I delivered it on foot. This little area is a gem to anybody interested in Dickensian London: it's barely changed in 200 years. Sheil Land's brass plaque is only a few doors down from the great man's former home, now a fascinating museum. Also, there are two brilliant pubs nearby: The Lady Ottoline and The Duke. When the snow is falling, as it was that evening, and the street lamps are lit...
Shadows in The Tiber, it's fair to say, was mainly crap. I've heard first novels wryly described as what happens when you turn on an ancient tap and yellow gunk sputters out. It was a novel about the life and violent deaths of the Gracchi brothers, social reformers in late Republican Rome. I still think there's a really good novel to be written about these two but this wasn't it. In fairness, there were some nuggets and the opening was okay but there were also some bits that now make me cringe. It was certainly rushed. Quite why anyone would submit a novel to several top agencies when it's not even finished is beyond me now, but that's just what I did. Probably a decade ago to the day, Ian Drury called and politely asked if he could see the complete novel. Delighted I certainly was but also panicked. I finished it off within a week of early starts and emailed it back. Predictably, a (very detailed) rejection letter followed a few weeks later. I was gutted but can hardly have been very surprised. An 11th agency, Blake Friedmann, also called in the rest of the novel but I didn't hear back. Probably just as well, especially when you hear of the more merciless variety of confidence-shattering rejection letters some writers receive. Full disclosure: I'd responded to a sequential alarm activation at Blake Friedmann's address just days before emailing Mr Friedmann himself. He was a lovely man and quite encouraging as I recall. I dare say that fortuitous meeting might have had a bearing on the call for the full manuscript... Disregarding that outlier, then, one request for a complete manuscript from ten submissions is, I have since learned, quite a good batting average but it doesn't mean you can think about giving up your day job.
Very kindly, however, Ian offered to meet for a coffee to discuss my writing and the industry in general. I wasn't so green that, for example, I didn't know in general terms how literary agents work but I clearly didn't have a clue about the many hurdles that must be overcome within the publishing houses themselves. The odds of surmounting them all seemed ludicrously high. Nevertheless, Ian was encouraging and said that he'd seen enough to suggest I could one day be published. So I got on with it, his reminder of Terry Pratchett's advice - 'make sure there's something on page one that makes the reader want to turn to page two' - ringing in my ears. And if that seems like overly-simplistic advice when writing a first draft, it's invaluable when it comes to editing and deciding whether or not to retain a particular scene.
A year or so later, I'd made a few good starts but they had come to nothing. The most heart-breaking was a half-decent novel set at sea during the First Punic War. I'd completed the 20,000th word one morning and headed off to Sainsbury's in Leytonstone feeling quite upbeat. I usually walked right past the bookshelves but for some reason glanced over and saw John Stack's Ship of Rome. I just knew it'd be about the Punic War, and so it was. Worse, the opening was along very similar lines to my own. Now, I've never met Mr Stack and I have no doubts at all he's a stand-up guy but I don't mind admitting that his smiling face on the inside jacket cover made me want to chuck the book across the aisle. I've still not read any of the series but the first was a best-seller. Fair play to the man: he executed a great idea and will have worked extremely hard at it. Ian confirmed my fears: my promising book was probably dead in the water. Better to row away from it.
Not too long after this disappointment, another idea - based on true events in the reign of Septimius Severus - began to emerge when I was dealing with a crime scene on the towpath of Camden Lock some time early in 2010. This became First Watch (later The Consul's Daughter). I hit send on this in May 2011.
19th SEPTEMBER 2011
I received the following email:
I finished this on Friday and I think you are nearly there. The sense of period is done well, but without it turning into a history lesson; the plot is believable and the characters all work.
Firstly, a couple of minor housekeeping points:
- AD 205 not 205 AD
- ‘Fighting back bitter tears, he got up and left the tavern for what would be the last time’ – don’t tell the audience what’s about to happen (or not). SHOW don’t TELL. This is the only instance I could find, but when you take a final pass through the script, be on the lookout for this sort of anticipation.
- Modernisms. Please avoid using expressions that are so obviously contemporary. They jar when uttered by characters in a historical novel just as they do in Hollywood films.
‘I’ll not go on committing endless resources to such a risk’. . .
‘dead man walking’
‘no pressure then’
‘ total lockdown’
Secondly, the overall size and shape of the story. At nearly 130,000 words, it’s a tad on the long side. In my view this script would benefit from a ruthless final pass that not only weeded out anachronistic modern speech and phrasing, but cut the text down to nearer 100,000 words. (If you aim for 100k and end up with 105k, that isn’t the end of the world – but have a try.) Jettison adverbs wherever possible. A good word cull will enable you to switch the reader from scene to scene much faster, giving it a better pace. You want people turning the pages as quickly as they can to find out what happens next; at the moment, it doesn’t zing along quite as fast as it should. It might also enable you to keep Ambrosius on centre stage a bit more of the time.
When you’ve done that, spare some thought for what happens next? Is this intended to be a series? (And I hope so.) A brief plot outline – just a page – would do at this stage.
I've included the content as it might be quite instructive for other aspiring writers, not least because it demonstrates the sort of timescales involved when dealing with busier literary agents. Though his comments were specific to my manuscript, they stand up well as general guidance to all fiction authors.
One of my biggest issues as a writer (as a person in general, for that matter) is impatience. He was of course absolutely spot-on with his advice and it goes to show just how closely most agents are prepared to look at a script, despite the sheer number of them that cross their desk every day. So whilst I was glad to see this email arrive in my inbox, I knew that there was still a lengthy process of revision and editing ahead. That followed by the natural delay of weeks, probably months, before the (hopefully) slicker script even got a reading meant that I was in a curious state of being neither happy nor disappointed. The fizz would have to remain on ice. For now.
I got back on the horse and gave the script a thorough workover. Whilst some might enjoy the editing process, I can't say this one gave me any great pleasure. I think I was just a bit tired of reading through the same story, even though I had thoroughly enjoyed writing it and was generally happy with it. There's no doubt, however, that this final edit made a great deal of difference. It's not easy chopping out entire scenes - I think we all have a bit of the hoarder in us - but, if they just don't drive the plot forwards, they have to go. After all, I'd been tasked with paring back the word count by 30,000, which meant I didn't have any room to be sentimental. In the end, I only managed about half of this before sending the leaner version back in October 2011, followed by the synopsis for the sequel in January 2012.
24th JANUARY 2012
My phone pinged a few hours after I'd got into bed after a night shift with the following message:
I like what you’ve done with the script and the synopsis for book 2 looks good. So I would like to formally offer you representation.
If you can let me have your postal address, I’ll get a client agreement in the post.
Now this was the email I'd been hoping to read for a long, long time. I had to read it several times over just to be sure my tired brain hadn't misled me.
The elation didn't last too long, though. Later that day, after a couple of unanswered messages and whilst working as custody sergeant during a particularly unpleasant shift, I learned that my relationship with a girl I'd known since university was over. It must be said, I'd been too preoccupied with finishing my book for the past few months to notice the writing appearing on the wall. Far from thinking about what it might like to be published, I was brought crashing down to earth wondering where I was going to be living next!